How much algebra do students need to succeed in college? UC stirs furious debate

A teacher leans over a desk to look at work students are doing on computers.
San Gabriel High School teacher Leah Ulloa Ruiz teaches a data science lesson to calculate the likelihood of whether men or women will be victims in horror movies.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, March 27. I’m Teresa Watanabe and I cover higher education. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

How much algebra do students need to succeed in college?

How many of you have taken algebra 2 and needed those skills to succeed in college? That question is at the heart of a huge debate about what high school math skills are needed for admission to the University of California and California State University.

What triggered the furor was UC’s decision to reverse the university’s approval of three high school data science courses to substitute for algebra 2. Both UC and CSU require students to take three years of math — algebra, geometry and algebra 2, or their equivalent integrated math courses — to qualify for admission. They also recommend a fourth year of advanced math.


I’m guessing that nearly all of you who attended a four-year university took algebra 2. The course is important not only for college-bound students. Some school districts require three years of math for high school graduation, including Los Angeles Unified.

Only 44% of California high school students complete two semesters of algebra 2, according to UC, so educators have been looking to widen math pathways with other courses.

UC had approved the first data science course, developed by UCLA, to substitute for algebra 2 at an LAUSD school back in 2013. UC’s decisions on what courses count as college-prep coursework are binding on CSU.

The back story on what led to the turnabout is a bit convoluted, but bear with me.

The data science courses began drawing particular scrutiny — with questions about their mathematical rigor — around 2020. That is also about the time when work began on revising statewide guidelines for math education, known as the California Math Framework.

Also in 2020, an administrator in the UC office that approves college-prep courses organized an ad hoc committee that recommended data science be formally approved as a substitute for algebra 2. The UC faculty board that oversees admission approved the recommendation in October 2020.

The ongoing work over the California Math Framework later brought the issue to a head. The first draft of the framework was released in early 2021, strongly advocating for data science courses and specifically mentioned UC’s decision to approve them to substitute for algebra 2. A lot of educators pushed back, including the CSU Academic Senate, which issued a resolution in March 2023 saying the courses weren’t rigorous enough to count for admission.


In July 2023, state education officials prepared to vote on the new math framework that included data science as an alternative pathway endorsed by UC. Amid ferocious lobbying on all sides, the UC faculty board voted to reverse that decision.

A working group, appointed to delve into the issues, affirmed the turnabout last month and UC then notified high school counselors.

The controversy has unleashed furious debate over what high school math skills are needed to succeed in college — and how best to deliver them equitably to a diverse range of students. Some equity advocates argue that alternative math pathways are necessary for students who struggle with algebra and don’t plan to major in STEM fields.

There are racial disparities in algebra 2 performance, with Asian American and white students earning the highest grades. There are also differences in the share of 12th-graders who advance to calculus, with Asian Americans at 25%, white students 13%, Latinos 7% and Black students 5%, according to a February 2023 report by the Policy Analysis for California Education.

But many STEM professionals, including those of color such as UC Berkeley professor Jelani Nelson, argue that the solution is to teach algebra 2 in a more engaging way — not assume students can’t learn it and give them an out. All students should be equipped with advanced algebra skills, they say, and not tracked into set pathways at such young ages.

When I began reporting this story, I confess I had to drop into Khan Academy’s online math classes to re-familiarize myself with what key concepts define algebra 2: polynomials, logarithms, exponential models. It’s been decades since I took high school algebra trig. I don’t remember needing long equations with multiple variables to get through college or work as a journalist. Did I actually need those math skills?


When I visited San Gabriel High School, a lot of students wondered the same thing. They were students in a data science class — and they were having a blast. The question of the day was whether the difference in survival rates of men and women in horror slasher films was due to chance; the students analyzed data files and used coding to find the answer.

Some students said they hated math, didn’t get algebra and couldn’t see how it would help them. They excitedly talked about how fun it was to collect real-life data for their labs, such as sleeping hours, stress levels and snack consumption.

The labs changed lives, with one student saying she was horrified to learn how much sodium she ate in her daily snacks of Takis and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Another student who was also taking calculus said he believed algebra 2 was essential for STEM careers — which he planned to pursue — but questioned the subject’s necessity for other fields.

But Jennifer Chayes, dean of UC Berkeley’s new College of Computing, Data Science and Society, told me that “thousands” of students change their minds about majors and all students should have advanced math preparation to keep their options open. Other experts reminded me that understanding, for instance, the trajectories of COVID-19 or wildfire spread, retirement fund growth, mortgage interest and other real-life situations requires algebraic understanding.

The UC working group will complete its report in May about what content is needed to qualify as advanced math for UC and CSU admission. Experts say data science courses most likely can be crafted to meet whatever requirements are laid out. The question is how.


Stay tuned.

Read more of Teresa’s story here: UC stirs furious debate over what high school math skills are needed to succeed in college

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